North Carolina Democrats sapped of ruling power in North Carolina state government over the past three years are cautiously optimistic their fortunes will improve in 2014, thanks to what they describe as poor Republican policy decisions in Raleigh.
Party leaders and organizers say they're energized after a year in which legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by new Gov. Pat McCrory led to massive public protests and negative news media attention for the GOP.
Republican leaders have "done specific things to people that have upset them," said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. "In politics, that's what moves people to vote."
But actions by Democrats in Washington and well-funded third-party groups interested in influencing Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's re-election bid could temper or cancel any hoped-for gains. Democrats also have to counter the conventional wisdom that the party that isn't in the White House performs well in the election during the middle of a president's second term.
"There's a lot of what will drive the election that is beyond your control," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant in North Carolina. While politics can change overnight, Pearce added, the driving issue in the 2014 election right now appears to be the poor rollout of the federal health care overhaul law.
Democrats entered 2013 with Republicans controlling the executive and legislative branches simultaneously for the first time since 1870.
Republicans argue they made tough decisions during the six-month legislative session in 2013 to bring fiscal stability to state government and energize the economy. They've highlighted a tax overhaul law, government regulatory reform and their decision to speed up payments owed to the federal government for unemployment insurance.
"Democrats conveniently forget that when they last had control of Raleigh, we had double-digit unemployment and a budget in complete disarray," state Republican Party spokesman Daniel Keylin wrote in an email Monday. "Why would we ever want to go back to their failed liberal policies?"
Democrats, holding 60 seats in the 170-member General Assembly, also were unable to stop Republican legislation that phases out tenure for public school teachers; refused to expand Medicaid; requires photo identification to vote; and ordered new operating rules for abortion clinics.
But the state NAACP and other advocacy groups brought urgency to oppose the bills through their "Moral Monday" protests at the Legislative Building. Weekly arrests of non-violent protesters invigorated the state party, which has gone through tumult since the legislature shifted to Republican hands after the 2010 elections.
New state Democratic Party Executive Director Robert Dempsey is optimistic entering 2014, saying more Democrats are re-engaging with the party. "We're reaching out to our stakeholders in a way that we haven't reached out to them before," Dempsey said. "We're very, very encouraged by the response that we're receiving."
When the legislature reconvenes in May, Republicans are likely to pass measures, such as allowing teacher pay raises, that could ease public criticism. All state House and Senate seats are up for re-election in November.
Because of current legislative boundaries and Republican-seat advantages, however, some Democrats are laying out a strategy to narrow GOP margins in 2014 and earn Democratic majorities in 2016. All 13 U.S. House seats — 10 of which are currently held by Republicans — also are on the ballot.
The 2014 election cycle in North Carolina is sure to be dominated by the U.S. Senate race.
Democrats already have spent money running commercials seeking to diminish the public standing of state House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, one of at least five people seeking the GOP nomination. Conservative advocacy groups, meanwhile, have tried to shed doubt on Hagan's service with their own ads.
Dempsey and Nesbitt say they'd welcome turning the Senate race into a referendum on Tillis and the Republican policies he helped get approved during his four years as speaker.
Tillis said the Republican agenda has been blurred by outside groups who want to retain the status quo.
"We've got to do a better job of cutting through the noise," he said this fall.
Republicans want Hagan's record, particularly on President Obama's health care law, to be front and center in her re-election campaign.
The U.S. Senate race is likely to attract more than $20 million in donations to candidates, not counting money spent by outside groups. That will make it harder for races further down on the state ballot to get attention.
Republicans held a strong fundraising advantage in North Carolina during the 2012 cycle. Nesbitt said the Democratic Party needs to bring in more money from high-dollar donors to close the gap.